The Fresno Flood

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Andi’s Journal

February 1887

Just when I feel like complaining about the rain, rain, rain, I bite my tongue. After all, Riley and I are pretty safe from flooding up here on Memory Creek ranch. It’s the folks in town, at the receiving end of the downpour that are in trouble. Six years ago, (San Francisco Smugglers) a flood surprised all of us citizens of Fresno one Sunday around noontime. One minute it was drizzling. The next minute somebody’s yelling “Flood!” I couldn’t wait to see a real flood. That turned out to be a silly wish. I ended up cold, wet, and in trouble for running off. Later, after the boys returned home from helping turn the water away from the main part of town, I learned why it was such a mess. These pictures come from the actual Fresno flood of February 20, 1884.

A flooded street in Fresno
The courthouse is at the left. What a mess!

Why the Terrible Flooding with No Warning?

In the 1800s well into the 20th century, climate events occurred with little or no warning. In the case of the Fresno flash flood, a tremendous amount or rain dumped on the foothills. No one in Fresno knew this was happening while they slept, not until the three flooded creeks (Big Dry Creek, Fancher, and Dog Creek) burst into overflowing and spread out over the flat, valley town. There were no satellite pictures and weathermen.

Today, dams on many California rivers keep floodwaters in check. Back east, residents sometimes know hours before a serious weather event and can evacuate. Only a few lives are lost in modern times, thank God. But not so in the past.  A hurricane devastated Miami, Florida, in 1926, and nobody had a clue it was coming! Because of no early-warning systems, about 1,000 people died and 1,200 more were injured. Plus all of the millions of dollars in damages to the city. Today’s weather forecasters can “see” a hurricane coming when it is days and days away, sometimes while it is still off the coast of Africa, headed toward the United States. They can accurately track which way it will go and which states will be affected. In California, the local weatherman tells viewers when an “atmospheric river” is headed toward the valley and foothills. Not so in my (Andi’s) day.

The residents of Fresno had no clue the day the flood was heading for them. The picture below shows the levee the townsfolk built near the RR station to keep the water away from the downtown area. Sadly, the only thing that kept the water from drowning most of the business section was cutting through the RR embankment and letting the water flood onto the other side of the tracks, where the Chinese lived.

The railroad depot and building the levee.

There were no government agencies like the Red Cross or FEMA to step in and aid flood victims. The townsfolk helped each other. Nobody telegraphed Sacramento or Washington D.C. and asked for flood relief. It was a different time. People were more independent and took care of themselves and their neighbors. They expected disasters and dug in to turn the disaster around. Here is an interesting excerpt from the Fresno Daily Expositor newspaper right after the event occurred.

The Fresno Expositer February 20, 1884

Sunday about noon word was bruited about town that a flood of water was coming which would probably envelope the greater part of town. By the time our reporter reached Kern street, the flood had already begun to pour into the easterly limit of town. A survey of the field made it apparent to all that some means must be found to convey the water through town or the main portion of it would soon be flooded. 

A levee was thrown up commencing at the intersection of J and Kern street to the alley between J and I streets and then diagonally across the vacant lots to I street, and from thence to H street, and an opening was cut though I street. This permitted the surging waters to pass on to the railroad reservation. By this course, the major part of the business portion of town was saved from the waters flowing in from the east, but it was done at a sacrifice to those located south and west of Tulare and I street.

Thomas E. Hughes and Sons had a heavy force of men building levies to protect their stable [livery] from the flood and succeeded for a time, but about ten o’clock the water began flowing down Kern street and made its way through the stable and drove the men from their position. This caused Madary’s Planing Mill, the Starr Hotel, the Stanislaus Brewery, Depot, Frank Rolle’s saloon and other property in that portion of town to be flooded—the water standing from three to five feet over that part of town.

H street and the railroad reservation east of the track was transformed into a huge river, which rushed along in a northerly direction until it met the waters of Big Dry Creek and those flowing through Mill ditch. This caused the water to backup Canal Street and flood a large portion of the town lying north of it, in which is located most of the family dwellings, and it also began to flow southerly down J street toward Mariposa in a strong stream.

Although a break had occurred in the railroad north of the station, the roadbed served as an embankment to throw the water back against town. By this time, three or four houses in that neighborhood were decidedly wet, a few feet deep, and the moving of furniture was quite brisk. One individual was engaged in fishing his floating stove wood out of the ocean about his door way.

About this time Jaf. Fred offered a reward for any of his hen coops anchored in a safe harbor. Three lone chicks sitting on a water corralled fence looked the picture of utter despair. Instructions were sent to cut the track north of the water tank, and this caused an easement and the waters soon began to recede.

Chinatown turned out in force when the great flood of water began to make its way through the railroad, and they built a levee around their quarter and saved their property from destruction and injury. The water reached its highest point about half-past 12 o’ clock, at which time it formed a compact stream, where it passed Hughes’ Stables, fully two hundred feet wide and an average of four feet deep, running with a rapid current. Women and children were carried out of several houses that were standing in water, and several narrow escapes from drowning occurred. 


Reading that old newspaper article from those few years ago reminded me how close I came to drowning. I fell out of the boat (Cory and I were trapped on the railroad bed embankment) but a Good Samaritan offered to row us to “shore,” meaning a street far away from the worst of the flood.

Riley looks forward to my retelling of my childhood adventures, the ones he had no part of, at least. Sometimes, I think he wished he’d never left the Circle C. I wish he’d never left either.

Published by Andi Carter

I'm the main character in the Circle C Adventures series. I live on a huge cattle ranch in 1880s California. These are my adventures.

15 thoughts on “The Fresno Flood

  1. That must’ve been really scary! (in the book!) Wow! That post brought out my dislike of spring season, when our yard floods enough for us to kayak around in it! (Witch is not very much, considering I live in northern Minnesota!) Thanks!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Floods are terrible things. When I lived in Darrington WA, whenever the “Chinook” (warm) winds came, snow in the hills and tall mountains ,melted (sometimes overnight) and water rushed down. We were safe on flat land above the Sauk River but some neighbors lost land and feared homes would go. Our family used to go down a steep hill back of our place to see what the flood did. Our normally peaceful river had become a raging monster. Downed trees formed huge log jams and gobbled up land at the sides of the river. Even merry little Dan Creek where we waded in summer swelled to frightening proportions. Dad taught us never to buy a home below a steep hill whee a creek tumbled down. My brothers and i never did!

    Liked by 4 people

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